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Is There One Presidential Candidate Who Meets the ‘Ed Reform’ Crowd’s Demands?

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 12, 2016 7 min read
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In an examination of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s education record published this week, we focus a lot on Kasich’s education record since 2011, when he became Ohio’s governor. When you compare his statements and his gubernatorial record to what the other four presidential hopefuls have been up to, it’s perhaps worth bringing up this question:

Should so-called education reform advocates be interested in or perhaps even enthusiastic about Kasich’s campaign?

“Education reform” is a complicated and sometimes-criticized term that does not fit all people perfectly all the time. But let’s use it as shorthand for a moment to describe those for those who hold at least some of the following views:

  • Strongly back charter schools, and in some cases vouchers as well;
  • Think that accountability should present data-based information on schools in a fashion parents can easily grasp;
  • Believe that standardized tests are vital for gauging the performance and needs of students and schools;
  • Say the Common Core State Standards are a significant improvement over the previous mish-mash of states’ standards;
  • Distrust education labor unions in at least some key circumstances.

That’s not an exhaustive list of what such advocates might support, but hopefully it gives you an idea of their key priorities.

Now let’s look at Kasich’s record.

As the story notes, since 2011, here’s what the governor’s gotten done, or tried to get done on K-12:

  • Has expanded the number of voucher programs in the state and is a big believer in charter schools. In fact, the number of students in charters in the state has continued to rise. However, in response to corruption and performance issues plaguing the states’ charters, last year, Kasich signed into law a bill designed to address Ohio charters’ most significant woes.

  • Signed into law an accountability system that uses A-F grades to measure school performance;

  • That A-F accountability system, as well as the state’s teacher evaluations, use test scores as a significant component, and the state (albeit just for one year) administered the federally funded PARCC exam;

  • Despite heavy pressure in Ohio, and despite the sentiment among many GOP presidential primary voters, to do otherwise, Kasich has stood by the common core and the state has ultimately stuck with the standards;

  • In 2011, Kasich signed into law and supported a measure to strip teachers’ unions (and other unions) of most of their collective bargaining powers. Voters, however, ultimately gave the law the thumbs-down at the ballot box that same year.

Now let’s look briefly at the other four presidential hopefuls:

  • Real estate developer Donald Trump confounds many education policy advocates, whether they are supportive of “reform” in at least some respects or not. His plan to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education triggers a relatively large number of frowns, except from some conservative voters and policy advocates, and his attacks on the common core get much the same reaction.

  • Roughly the same can be said for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, because he holds the same positions on the Education Department and common core as Trump. He’s also opposed federal oversight of K-12 accountability during his time in the Senate. However, he has been an enthusiastic backer of charters and vouchers, even if the sentiment isn’t always universally reciprocated.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., might be too supportive of labor unions, too critical of standardized tests, and too skeptical (if not opaque) about charters for many “ed reform” backers. However, he did back an amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act that would have beef up accountability in the law.

  • Finally, there’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So-called education reformers, and particularly Democrats in that camp, might at one point have believed Clinton would be the best candidate to support their views as president, irrespective of the fact that ESSA might put K-12 policy on the backburner for the next president’s first term at least.

Back when she was Arkansas’ first lady, she participated in the push to improve content standards and supports the common core strongly. She has backed charter schools, even doing so in 2007 before a teachers’ union convention and getting jeered in the process. And she previously backed a bill in Congress to provide Teach for America, long a target for criticism from teachers’ unions, direct federal funding. On Monday, she told Newsday, a New York paper, that she wouldn’t opt her granddaughter out of the state’s common core exams, even as she called the state’s rollout of the standards “disastrous.”

But her 2016 campaign so far has, in a few respects, taken a very different tack. She snagged the endorsement of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association last year, and has taken their side when questions about teachers have come up. And she’s criticized charters for not always accepting the “hardest to teach” kids, although she has since made friendlier remarks about charters. Keep one thing in mind, however—Clinton has generally not been supportive of using test scores to determine individual teacher pay.

Among the candidates, then, it could be argued Kasich’s record and his campaign rhetoric best match the priorities laid out by various groups such as the Foundation for Excellence in Education, StudentsFirst (which recently announced its merger with 50CAN, a like-minded organization in several respects), and others.

So at least when it comes to policy, should “education reformers” be most enthusiastic about Kasich? Or should Clinton’s long history be more persuasive? Does the answer vary depending on who you talk to? Here are some additional thoughts:

  • No matter how well Kasich’s record and rhetoric meet any particular blueprint, his poor performance at the ballot box in 2016 and his long-shot plans to win the GOP nomination at the party convention in Cleveland in July are perhaps tamping down interest in and enthusiasm for his track record and his vision.

  • Republicans who favor “education reform” mostly don’t vote based solely on one particular policy issue, and they clearly like Cruz and Trump more for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with education.

  • Democrats who count as “reformers” likely don’t vote based solely on one particular policy issue, and it’s probably too much to expect many of them to get excited about a candidate from the other major party just because he agrees with them on some K-12 policy issues.

  • Because not all “education reformers” support all the same policies all the time, it’s hard to say that Kasich’s record would satisfy all of them equally. For example, as I indicated above, some of them might like Kasich’s support for, and effort to clean up, charter schools in Ohio, but be less enthusiastic or even opposed to his expansion of vouchers in the Buckeye State. And “reformers” who believe new assessments like PARCC are an improvement over many other state exams probably weren’t pleased that Kasich sided with state lawmakers in tossing PARCC overboard after the 2014-15 school year.

I called up Charlie Barone, the policy director for Education Reform Now and Democrats for Education Reform, to ask him about Kasich.

Barone said that while Kasich has done some praiseworthy things in Ohio, “I guess I feel that on the Republican side, I feel the bar is so low.”

Barone praised Kasich’s “political courage” for sticking by the common core. But he’s particularly critical of how Kasich has addressed, or failed to address, the charter sector in Ohio, regardless of how supportive Kasich is generally of charters. And Barone is taking a “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach to a bill designed to clean up the sector that Kasich signed into law last year.

More broadly, Barone said he’s frustrated with Kasich’s poor record on charters on the one hand, and on the other hand, not happy that Clinton and Sanders are misrepresenting charter schools.

“It’d be great if there were a candidate who were in the middle” on charters, as well as other issues, Barone told me.

Overall, however, he’s said that Clinton’s K-12 record is much better, despite the times he’s disagreed with her remarks about education recently.

DFER’s Marianne Lombardo, who reviewed Kasich’s “contradictory education record,” in March, concluded that it’s been a “mixed bag.”

But Kasich has been able to build on Ohio’s pre-existing “reform” policies in several helpful ways, said Chad Aldis, the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who is personally supportive of Kasich, although his organization hasn’t endorsed anyone. (Aldis talked to us for our print story on Kasich this week).

Kasich should be given credit not just for things like A-F accountability and his backing for the common core, according to Aldis, but also for expanding the reach of career and technical education in schools, and for providing support to Community Connectors, which provides various mentoring opportunities for students with businesses, faith-based organizations, and other groups.

“Not everyone is standing arm in arm singing ‘Kumbaya.’ But we’ve gotten things done,” Aldis said.

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